Chrysler’s origins lie in the Maxwell Motor Company, Inc. (formed in 1913). The first Maxwell car was made in 1904 by Jonathan Maxwell and Benjamin Briscoe, who in 1909 joined the short-lived United States Motor Company. With the collapse of this combine in 1913, Maxwell continued on alone until the postwar recession. In 1920, deeply in debt and facing ruin, the company convinced Walter P. Chrysler, who had resigned from the Buick division of General Motors, to join the effort to revitalize the company. In 1922 the Maxwell Company took over Chalmers Motor Car Co. (founded in 1908). In the following year Chrysler bought control. Under Chrysler’s leadership, the company began to manufacture competitive automobiles, beginning with a revolutionary six-cylinder vehicle that was introduced at the 1924 New York Automobile Show. In 1925 the Maxwell Motor Company became the Chrysler Corporation, with Chrysler as president. With the purchase of Dodge Brothers, Inc. (founded in 1914), and the introduction of Plymouth in 1928, the Chrysler Corporation became a major presence in the American automotive industry.
Chrysler teamed up with three ex-Studebaker engineers, Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer, to design a revolutionary new car. They defined what the products of the Chrysler brand would be – affordable “luxury” vehicles known for innovative, top-flight engineering.
The first was the 1924 Chrysler Six, an all-new car priced at $1,565 that featured two significant innovations – a light, powerful, high-compression six-cylinder engine and the first time four-wheel hydraulic brakes were standard on a passenger car. The well-equipped Chrysler Six also featured aluminum pistons, replaceable oil and air filters, full-pressure lubrication, tubular front axles, shock absorbers and indirect interior lighting.
1930-1935: Within a decade of its founding, Chrysler Corporation’s leadership in innovation had earned for it the label of Detroit’s “engineering company.” Chrysler’s list of early automotive “firsts” included Floating Power (a new method of mounting engines to isolate vibration), replaceable oil filters, downdraft carburetors and one-piece curved windshields.
Chrysler entered a higher level of competition with its richly appointed Imperial series. With a custom-built body from LeBaron or Briggs, a 145-inch-wheelbase chassis, a 125-horsepower engine and a price tag of $3,145, a typical Imperial of the early 1930s rivaled a Duesenberg in style, but cost only about a third as much!
1946-1954: The first indication of changing times at Chrysler came with the 1951 development, and enthusiastic reception, of the authoritative, hemispheric-head V-8 engine. The soon-to-be legendary HEMI® combined better combustion, higher compression and lower heat loss to create much more horsepower than previous V-8s. Close behind was the fully automatic Powerflite transmission.
Chrysler then reaffirmed its engineering reputation by commissioning a revolutionary gas turbine engine program. This 27-year campaign to apply an aircraft engine turbine’s smooth power and low maintenance requirements to automobiles became part of the Chrysler brand’s folklore.
Along with General Motors and Ford, Chrysler played a key role in supporting the U.S. military effort during World War II. By many accounts Chrysler led the pack, accepting defense contracts even before the United States entered the war. Between 1942 and 1945 virtually all civilian car production was suspended, as the automotive industry turned its factories to the task of filling defense contracts. Under the leadership of company president K.T. Keller, Chrysler built more than 25,000 Sherman and Pershing tanks during the course of the war.
The 1950s and ’60s marked a period of growth and innovation at Chrysler as they began absorbing other companies in and out of the automotive industry. The company pioneered the “muscle car,” beginning with the 1955 C-300, featuring a 300-horsepower hemi V-8 engine, and following with the outstanding 1960 Chrysler 300 F. Popular high-performance cars of the 1960s included the Chrysler 300 coupes, the Chrysler Imperial LeBaron, the Dodge Charger, and the Dodge Coronet.
1955-1962: Exner revived Chrysler production car design with the sleek, sculptured Forward Look designs of 1955 that transformed the product line overnight. The Forward Look flagship was the 1955 Chrysler 300, a striking automobile that combined smooth styling with brawny HEMI power. The 300, arguably the first muscle car, became a legend on and off the race track and set records throughout the 1950s, including a 143-mph performance at Daytona Beach. As the Fifties progressed, Chrysler products began to sprout distinctive tailfins, ostensibly to improve handling and stability above 70 miles per hour. The 1957 Chrysler brand standard-bearer, the 300C, was equipped with a standard 392-cubic-inch, 375-horsepower HEMI, two four-barrel carburetors, a high-output camshaft, Torsion-Aire suspension and the new Torqueflite transmission, making it the fastest, most powerful production car built in America that year and earning it the appellation “beautiful brute.”
The company’s engineering “firsts” from this era include the first “safety cushion dashboard,” the famous Chrysler push-button transmission (which became an icon of the ’50s), power steering, torsion-bar suspension and the first practical alternator (introduced in 1960, it proved so successful it became standard equipment just one year later).
In 1966–67 it acquired control of Simca in France, Rootes Motors Ltd. in Britain, and Barreiros Diesel in Spain—which were renamed Chrysler France, Chrysler United Kingdom, and Chrysler España, respectively. In 1979 these were sold to PSA Peugeot Citroën SA in exchange for minority shares in Peugeot Citroën. In 1970 the Mitsubishi Motors Corporation of Japan began producing subcompact cars to be sold in the United States under the Chrysler name; the following year Chrysler began buying shares in Mitsubishi, eventually acquiring 24 percent of the Japanese automaker before selling all of its stock in the early 1990s.
1971-1979: One design highlight in Chrysler’s rapidly evolving 1970s lineup was the Cordoba – a 115-inch-wheelbase coupe billed as “Chrysler’s new small car.” With its Jaguar-like front end, formal roofline and one-of-a-kind rectangular tail lamps, it became one of the era’s most memorable cars – along with the TV commercials featuring actor Ricardo Montalban extolling the virtues of its “rich Corinthian leather” interior. Cordobas sold better than all other Chrysler models combined, inspiring other new, “smaller” Chrysler designs, like the LeBaron Medallion coupe.
Like the rest of the American automobile industry, Chrysler was caught off guard by a serious challenge from small fuel-efficient Japanese cars after the oil crisis of 1973. With oil prices rising tenfold by 1980, consumers were less interested in “muscle” and more interested in price and fuel efficiency—and Chrysler, like its rivals General Motors and Ford, did not have viable competing compact cars in its lineup. In serious financial straits, the company hired Lee A. Iacocca as its president and chairman of the board. In the 1960s Iacocca had achieved prominence at Ford for his innovative engineering and design breakthroughs, including the sporty Mustang, which was introduced to great acclaim at the 1964 World’s Fair. However, Iacocca’s contentious relationship with his boss, Henry Ford II, led to his being fired in 1978. Within months he was running Chrysler, a company awash in problems. Indeed, soon after taking the job, Iacocca learned that Chrysler was on the brink of bankruptcy.
In 1979, in the midst of the second oil crisis in a decade, Iacocca made the bold move of appealing to the U.S. Congress for a loan guarantee of $1.5 billion. He overcame strong resistance on Capitol Hill by producing a list including each congressional district with an estimate of the number of jobs that would be lost if Chrysler failed. The strategy worked. Congress approved the deal, and in January 1980 Pres. Jimmy Carter signed the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act.
Having secured the loan, Iacocca went to work transforming the company, beginning with serious cost-cutting measures. He announced that he would slash his own salary to $1 a year, and he demanded that everyone else, up and down the line, “take a haircut.” With unprecedented cooperation from both union and management, Iacocca trimmed the company’s balance sheet. In 1983 a more stable Chrysler repaid the loan, well in advance of its deadline, along with an additional $350 million in interest. In a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Iacocca proclaimed, “We at Chrysler borrow money the old-fashioned way. We pay it back.”
That same year Chrysler introduced the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager—the first minivans, a type of family-oriented vehicle that would become the automotive sales leader for the next 25 years. The development of the K-car platform, with its signature vehicles the Dodge Aries, Plymouth Reliant, and Chrysler LeBaron, further enhanced Chrysler’s profitability. During this period Iacocca became something of a populist star, especially when he began to appear in a series of television commercials promoting Chrysler cars by challenging viewers, “If you can find a better car, buy it!”
In 1987 Chrysler purchased an Italian company, Nuova Automobili F. Lamborghini (founded in 1963 by Ferruccio Lamborghini), maker of expensive, high-performance sports cars, and American Motors Corporation (founded in 1954 through the merger of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and Hudson Motor Car Company), maker of the Jeep four-wheel-drive vehicles. Iacocca especially saw potential in the Jeep Cherokee, which went on to become one of the most popular sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). During this period Chrysler set up a 50–50 joint venture, named Diamond-Star Motors, with Mitsubishi to produce subcompact cars at an Illinois plant. In 1991 Mitsubishi bought out Chrysler’s interest in the company and renamed it Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing America.
From Daimler To Fiat
Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992, but before doing so he recruited his replacement, Robert J. Eaton, president of General Motors Europe. Concerned with the competitive threat of a strong global automotive industry, Eaton was persuaded to embark upon a risky new direction. In May 1998 Chrysler Corporation and Daimler-Benz AG announced plans to merge, with Daimler-Benz (see Daimler AG) acquiring the American automaker for more than $35 billion in a stock swap. Shareholders from each company approved the deal in September, and the merger was completed on Nov. 12, 1998; shares in the newly formed DaimlerChrysler AG began trading on stock exchanges later that month. After a poor performance in 2001, which forced the closing of Plymouth, the Chrysler Group posted profits for several years, owing in part to strong sales for new models such as the Dodge Magnum.
Although the creation of DaimlerChrysler was billed as a “merger of equals,” critics charged that it was actually a takeover by the German company, and they predicted that a clash of cultures, if not goals, would make a successful coupling impossible.
2005: The new millennium ushered in a decade of innovation and design accomplishments for Chrysler, most notably the launch of the iconic Chrysler 300C-the latest generation in a long pedigree of champion 300s built for excitement since 1955. When it was launched in 2005, the stunning 300C turned the eyes of the automotive world back to Detroit. And shone a new spotlight on great American design.
But the Chrysler 300C wasn’t the only shining example of Chrysler design innovation this decade-the introduction of the PT Cruiser fused modern amenities with a retro sensibility romanticizing an era of hot rod Model A wagons. And the decade was one of remarkable reinvention of the minivan. By the people who invented it. With our family flagship Town & Country receiving a host of technology and safety innovations to maintain its status as the minivan benchmark into the new millennium and beyond.
Chrysler was founded on the philosophy of design with purpose. To build revolutionary new cars – affordable luxury vehicles known for their innovative, forward-thinking engineering. And it is our purpose today and for tomorrow. Our alliance with Fiat Group now gives us the competitive advantage of access to new technologies and advanced engineering solutions that further our mission. Our beautiful purpose. To create the type of exciting, efficient, reliable, safe vehicles you expect and deserve.
After Chrysler posted a loss of $1.5 billion in 2006, Daimler cut it loose, selling the Chrysler Group to the American private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management in 2007. The new firm was named Chrysler LLC. Robert Nardelli, former head of Home Depot, became the chairman and chief executive officer.
In December 2008 Pres. George W. Bush announced an emergency financial rescue plan to aid the “Big Three” automakers—Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford—to prevent the collapse of the country’s struggling auto industry. The plan made immediately available $13.4 billion in government loans from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), a $700 billion fund approved by Congress to aid the financial industry in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. The loans would allow the auto companies to continue operating through March 2009, when they were required to either demonstrate “financial viability” or return the money. An additional stipulation required the companies to undergo restructuring. The money was initially made available to General Motors and Chrysler; Ford claimed to possess adequate funds to continue operations and thus did not apply for government relief.
In 2009 Chrysler and the Italian automaker Fiat SpA announced that Fiat would acquire a significant stake in Chrysler. After creditors refused to restructure the company’s debt, Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April 2009. Two months later it finalized its deal with Fiat, which acquired most of Chrysler’s assets and took an initial 20 percent stake in the automaker. Others with ownership interest included the United Auto Workers (UAW) union and the governments of the United States and Canada. As part of the reorganization deal, a new company, Chrysler Group LLC, was formed. During the first year of the reorganization, Chrysler posted a substantial sales increase while cutting many of the old brands. In May 2011 Chrysler reported its first quarterly profit in some five years. Later that month the automaker paid back about $7.5 billion in loans from the U.S. and Canadian governments. Some of the repayment funds came from Fiat, which increased its stake in Chrysler to 46 percent. In July 2011 Fiat became the majority shareholder after purchasing the remaining stakes held by the two governments. Three years later Fiat assumed full ownership of Chrysler after acquiring the UAW’s share.
2012: The Chrysler 300C SRT8® wowed drivers and critics alike. As part of our legendary Street and Racing Technology lineup, the SRT8 built upon the foundation of the 300C and amped up the performance to a whole new level. With an incredible 425 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, this sedan was more than just good looks. In fact, it was one of the first times an automaker dared to combine high-end luxury and elite performance at a reasonable sticker price.